Why make a fuss about values in business leadership?  Don’t business leaders have enough of a challenge just trying to get the job done?  A recent blog post from our friend and colleague, Dan Wallace, a Partner at Tailwind Discovery Group, eloquently addressed this issue.  Dan cited a post from Michael Wheeler, a behavioral economist.  Wheeler was reflecting on the recent case of a British marine who was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison for killing a wounded, helpless enemy fighter in Afghanistan. Wheeler suggested that only a clear statement of the core belief, “Marines don’t do that,” might have stopped the soldier from committing this crime.

Dan proposed that, whether or not Wheeler is right about this particular incident, there’s an important underlying message.  As Dan wrote, “Being exceptionally clear about what you believe at your core – the small handful of behavior-guiding beliefs and values that are most important to you – can be exceptionally helpful when you least expect it.”

Dan cited three other examples of leaders who successfully navigated crises by relying on a core value to guide their judgment:

  • Sully Sullenberger, airline pilot: Sullenberger had decided years earlier that if he ever found himself flying a stricken plane, he would consider the plane lost and would concentrate only on saving the people on board.  As a result, when the crisis happened to his plane, he spent zero time considering whether he should attempt to get the plane to the closest airport, which might have saved the plane but would have put the passengers at much greater risk. This certainty saved him precious seconds, which he used to make the miracle water landing that saved the lives of his passenger and crew.
  • Kim Clark, Dean of the Harvard Business School: An applicant hacked the website that many business schools use to manage admissions, posted the hacking instructions online, and many other applicants hacked the site to check their admission status.  While most of the Deans of other business schools did nothing, Clark announced immediately that no applicant who hacked the site would be admitted to HBS that year.  They would be welcome to reapply, but the admissions committee would look closely at what they had learned from the experience.  Clark had a deeply held code of ethics that placed exceptionally high value on integrity, respect, and accountability, and he saw all three as having been violated by the hackers.  He said later that the correct course of action was so obvious to him that he did not have to give it conscious thought, and he never second-guessed himself.
  • James Burke, CEO of Johnson & Johnson: Burke made the decision to pull all Tylenol off store shelves, at the cost of millions of dollars, after seven people had died from poisoned Tylenol.  Six years earlier, as a brand-new CEO, Burke had challenged the company to either recommit to or discard its core value of putting the well-being of its customers first, regardless of the cost.  He had so deeply ingrained that value in himself that when the crisis occurred, he felt that the decision to pull the product had already been made.

As Dan wrote, “What these stories have in common is the link between values and identity.   These leaders were so completely clear about what they held most dear, about who they would want to be in a moment of crisis, that when that moment occurred, each took the action he’d have wanted to take had there been time for deliberation.  That’s what clarity about your core beliefs and values can do for you – guide you to the right action when you least expect to need the help, yet need it the most.  So take a clarity break and figure out what your handful of core beliefs or values are.  It will help you.  Do it soon.”

At the start of the new year, many people will take time to reflect on the past year and focus themselves for the new year.  Dan’s advice to include reflection on our core values is a powerful way to set ourselves up for a good new year.

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